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Back to an electric future for cars

A Caltech scientist turned the key in 1948, and innovation is getting into gear. Now we're on the road from smog to ZEVs.

December 11, 2011|By Daniel Yergin
  • In 1953, smog gets so bad in the shadow of City Hall that pedestrians carry rags to wipe away tears.
In 1953, smog gets so bad in the shadow of City Hall that pedestrians carry… (R.L. Oliver / Los Angeles…)

One day in 1948, Caltech chemistry professor Arie Haagen-Smit took a break from trying to decipher the mystery of the flavor of the pineapple. He stepped outside his lab for a breath of fresh air but instead found himself enveloped in what he called "that stinking cloud" of smog. At the time, there was a bitter debate as to what caused smog. So Haagen-Smit decided to put aside his pineapples (he had already worked out the taste chemistry of onions, garlic and wine and had identified the active agent in marijuana) to try to solve the source of smog.

What he discovered explains why plug-in electric cars — the Leafs, Volts, Teslas and all the other models that automakers will bring out in the next few years — are appearing on our roads. Or, to be more precise, reappearing.

In 1900, more battery-powered electric cars ran on the streets of New York City than cars with internal combustion engines, and over the next few years there was a fierce race for supremacy between them. But the arrival in 1908 of Henry Ford's Model T turned the gasoline-powered car into an affordable mass-market product and made the electric car a historical curiosity. The moment when Haagen-Smit exchanged his fascination with food for one for smog marked the beginning of a shift back.

It could only have happened in L.A., which in the decades after World War II was under continuous attack by a blue-gray cloud that stung the eyes, made breathing painful and suffocated the L.A. Basin. On bad days, L.A. schools canceled recess. Sometimes the smog was so dense that motorists had to pull over and wait for it to lift; flights had to be diverted from Los Angeles airport.

The city seemed defenseless. During one particularly bad attack, Mayor Norris Poulson was hauled in front of a grand jury that wanted action. The mayor said there was nothing he could do save issue a proclamation "to halt automobile traffic and to direct people to stay home."

A critical obstacle to doing more than that was the lack of agreement about what caused smog. Many thought the main culprit were the million and a half backyard trash incinerators. Using his great skills as a chemist, Haagen-Smit demonstrated otherwise. And he did so rather quickly; as he put it, "We hit the jackpot with the first nickel."

The source was primarily the emissions from the incomplete burning of gasoline in internal combustion engines, plus emissions from gas storage tanks and auto gas tanks. The automobile that was the basis of the Southern California way of life was also the scourge of that lifestyle. One citizen summed up the shock in a letter to the Los Angeles Times: "We have created one of the finest networks of freeways in the country, and suddenly wake up to discover that we have also created a monster."

From Haagen-Smit's decisive discovery came the first regulations of auto emissions, which led to the catalytic converter and other technical solutions. But it didn't happen right away. One smog attack in the 1960s was so bad that Gov. Ronald Reagan went on television to plead with the public "to limit all but absolutely necessary auto travel."

But Reagan did something else as well. In 1967, he signed into law a new agency — the California Air Resources Board. As its first chairman, he chose none other than Haagen-Smit, by then known as the "Father of Smog."

Because California was such a large car market and because other states adopt its regulations, the air resources board became the closest thing to a global environmental regulator of the auto industry. From the beginning under Haagen-Smit, it focused on solving the smog problem. It required automakers to come up with emission solutions, and the air quality in Southern California improved in response.

Then, in 1990, the board took a historic step. It ordered that 10% of new cars sold in California by 2003 had to be zero emission vehicles, or ZEVs. That required, in practical terms, electric cars.

The zero-emissions target had slipped into the regulations almost unnoticed, but carmakers set out to deliver as ordered. Remember the EV1? In the 1990s, GM spent a billion dollars on its development. And Toyota tried to sell an all-electric version of the RAV4, its small SUV. But while hybrid Priuses moved out of showrooms, there was little consumer interest in the all-electric model. The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" names the automakers themselves as the main villain, but the real obstacle was the technology, or lack thereof.

"The true villain was the battery," said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a current member of air resources board. "The batteries at the time were simply not capable of meeting the cost requirements and the performance expectations."

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